President’s Column: Moral Panics Aplenty

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Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD
cjfergus@stetson.edu

Over the past few decades, policymakers, parents, and scholars wrung hands over the possible effects of violence in video games on aggression, violence, and even mass shootings. Comparisons were made to smoking and lung cancer, and some scholars generalized laboratory studies using buckets of ice water or bursts of annoying noise to high profile crimes (Markey et al., 2015). With time, however, we began to see clearly that publication bias had exaggerated effects (Hilgard et al., 2017) and even the APA’s task force on video games proved to have been poorly done (Ferguson, Copenhaver & Markey, 2020), with no good evidence emerging to link video games to aggression. 

We should learn from episodes like this. But, fascinatingly, we simply don’t. Just this past year has seen moral panics over media and technology wash over us, one after another. Perhaps the most high-profile has been the revelation that Facebook had internal research linking Instagram use to mental health issues in girls. This was a bombshell, and the headlines comparing this to the cigarette industry almost wrote themselves. Only a close look at the data suggested that the Facebook studies were pretty bad (Ritchie, 2021). In short, the studies used poor, leading questions like “Do you think Instagram has an effect on your mental health?” That’s an opinion survey and people misattribute the cause of their behavior all the time (especially when offered an opportunity to blame it on something other than themselves). A forthcoming meta-analysis of studies involving social media and other screens and mental health conducted by members of our division as well as parallel divisions of the Psychological Society of Ireland and British Psychological Society concluded that the research evidence to date is unable to connect social media use to mental health outcomes for any age group (Ferguson et al., in press).

Currently, we’re seeing a panic over whether a Dave Chappelle comedy special is causing violence toward the trans community (as some activists have claimed) because some people find some of his jokes offensive. I suspect most people on both sides of the debate haven’t seen the special (I have for the record). But there’s a big difference between finding something offensive, which is subjective (and comedy has always pushed the boundaries of acceptable discourse) and claims of harm. It is well known that transgendered individuals experience higher levels of bullying and harassment (Pampati et al., 2020). Whether this translates to homicides is less clear, as evidence here is nuanced.  Overall, transgendered individuals experience homicide less than do cisgendered individuals. However, Latina and Black trans women experience homicide more often than cis women (though less than cis men, see Dinno, 2017). Either way, there is little evidence to suggest a comedy special can drive violence. The issue is not that people are wrong to be offended…again, this is subjective and my read of the special is I both understand why some people were upset, while also worrying about the proportionality of the response. Offended people certainly have the right to criticize the special, write op-eds, or post Tik Tok videos criticizing it, etc. Yet I worry about two things. First, however offended people are by media, we cannot give them the right to decide what we read, watch, say, etc. That amounts to de facto censorship. Second, I worry that claims people will die because of the special may turn off the larger audience (and the special is very popular), and actually work against very critical trans activism in other realms.

It was also recently revealed that in Canada in 2019, a school council engaged in an old fashion book burning (they referred to it as a “flame purification ritual”). The books in question were, in various ways, considered offensive to Indigenous cultures. This follows on a rash of church burnings in Canada which also seem to have been provoked by the perception churches were involved in systemic mistreatment of Indigenous children across Canadian history (Goldman, 2021). No matter how worthy the cause (and promoting the health and culture of Indigenous peoples is certainly worthy), book burnings rarely look good and can discredit otherwise valuable efforts. 

Lest we think all these panics are coming from the progressive left, conservatives in Wyoming are trying to get librarians charged with child abuse because some books in the library aimed at youth discuss topics related to sex, homosexuality, etc. (Gruver, 2021). Some of the books are understandably provocative to conservatives but having seen a spreadsheet of the books under challenge, others involve things like discussing the courtship behavior of seahorses. Either way, if activists trying to convince Netflix to pull Dave Chappelle from availability is de facto censorship, threatening librarians with serious charges is de jure censorship and should be a clear First Amendment violation. 

It is fascinating to wonder how we keep coming back to the same place. We easily giggle over the moral panics of the past (increasingly including the video game panic) yet fall easily into the trap in the current day. Worse, scholars are far from immune to it. Just as scholars (and the American Psychological Association) led the video game panic of yesteryear, so they are often at the forefront of today’s panics as well.

Some of it likely is how we incentivize panics. Examine the hero treatment Facebook “whistleblower” Frances Haugen is receiving. Who wouldn’t want to be a national hero? For scholars, even being a minor hero can be intoxicating, particularly when it comes to professional prestige and grant money. For the APA, it’s good politics…and we do need to stop thinking of the APA as a science organization…it’s not. It’s part guild part and part (as another scholar once put it) publishing house that happens to have members. It’s a business, and fear sells.

But as scholars, we need to insist on more. We should be alert for these narratives and be suspicious of their Manichaean moral worldview.  We need to insist on good, preregistered, transparent data. We need to be alert to effect sizes. And we need to remember history and how the immediate media crisis of today is often the thing people in the future roll their eyes at, even as they concoct their own panics. 

References

Dinno, A.  (2017). Homicide Rates of Transgender Individuals in the United States: 2010–2014. American Journal of Public Health, 107, 1441-1447.

Ferguson, C.J., Copenhaver, A. & Markey, P.  (2020). Re-examining the findings of the APA’s 2015 task force on violent media: A meta-analysis. Perspectives on Psychological Science 15(6), 1423-1443.

Ferguson, C.J., Kaye, L., Branley-Bell, D., Markey, P., Ivory, J., Klisanin, D., et al.  (in press). Like This Meta-analysis: Screen Media and Mental HealthProfessional Psychology: Research and Practice.

Goldman, S.  (2021). Books, churches, what will the Canadians burn next?  The Week.  Retrieved from: https://theweek.com/politics/1004690/canadian-book-church-burnings

Gruver, M.  (2021). Wyoming librarians under fire for books about sex, LGBTQ.  Washington Post.  Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/prosecutors-in-wyoming-weigh-charging-librarians-over-books/2021/10/01/50e97a06-2307-11ec-a8d9-0827a2a4b915_story.html

Hilgard, J., Engelhardt, C. R., & Rouder, J. N. (2017). Overstated evidence for short-term effects of violent games on affect and behavior: A reanalysis of Anderson et al (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 143(7), 757–774. https://doi-org.stetson.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/bul0000074.supp (Supplemental)

Markey, P. M., Males, M. A., French, J. E., & Markey, C. N. (2015). Lessons from Markey et al (2015) and Bushman et al (2015): Sensationalism and integrity in media research. Human Communication Research, 41(2), 184–203. https://doi-org.stetson.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/hcre.12057

Pampati, S., Andrzejewski, J., Sheremenko, G., Johns, M., Lesesne, C. A., & Rasberry, C. N. (2020). School climate among transgender high school students: An exploration of school connectedness, perceived safety, bullying, and absenteeism. The Journal of School Nursing, 36(4), 293–303. https://doi-org.stetson.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/1059840518818259

Richie, S.  (2021). Is Instagram really bad for teenagers? Unherd.  Retrieved from: https://unherd.com/2021/09/facebooks-bad-science/

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